I was talking to Bryan Collins before we recorded an episode for his Become a Writer Today podcast recently, and the Zettelkasten note cards have changed the way he writes. We talked about it because he found it through my Forge piece on it, and it also changed the way I wrote and worked. If you have no idea what a Zettelkasten is, that’s the prequel to this piece.
If you’re an OG Star Wars fan or hate prequels for whatever reason (and sequels even more so now), I’m sorry I brought it up and offer this summary: it’s basically a note-taking method that focuses on connecting note cards together.
Disclaimer: I’m well aware of the mystique and criticisms on writing about taking notes. In this case, let’s treat note cards like the writing surface it is… which is basically just any other—nothing magical. It just happens to work really well for me, and I think it could work for you too.
Here are eight lessons I’ve learned from writing 800 note cards through a year with the Zettelkasten:
1. The Septic Tank Analogy
Because I write a new note card (almost) every day, I don’t worry too much about how important each note card is. I like what Beeple said about art, “If you take it down a notch and just look at it as something you have to do today, just like taking a dump or eating supper, then it will be more sustainable in the long run.”
I once read an analogy of the Zettelkasten being like a septic tank, and I really liked that. Put everything in there—let the clear thinking emerge.
2. Start with Writing by Hand
I first started taking notes by writing them on 4×6 index cards. The constraints are really useful. The extra effort of writing by hand encourages me to figure out if something really is worth noting down, instead of just copying and pasting. Plus, it removes the distraction of the internet (which was the main reason I went analog). There’s evidence it’s better for memory.
The constraint of the physical size of the note card also means that a note won’t get too long before I run out of space. This would be a problem if I started digitally.
I did start buying heavy duty 4×6 index cards, I didn’t like how thin the regular ones were. If you’re a klutz like me, be wary of papercuts. The Zettelkasten can bite.
3. Structure Encourages Ideas to Evolve
A common point is, any time spent working on the Zettelkasten could be time spent on actual work. For eight years, I bought into this line of thinking. Of course I still took notes in meetings, at conferences, etc., but I’d skip organizing them or structuring them. Instead of writing notes, I’d just write an article (usually at publications like Fast Company, Quartz at Work, and Marker, and Forge, and used to be a staff writer for Lifehacker.) It was okay—my life wasn’t a mess—but I did notice some pains.
For example, I’d find shipping larger scopes or pieces of work nearly impossible. I would organize a ton of research into a point-form outline in Google Docs. Each doc got more difficult to manage, and I’d lose track of points, get fed up, lose interest in the idea, and move onto the next thing. You could say that this was more a timing/subject/focus problem, which I’d agree with you on, but the structure didn’t help me resolve this problem. Topics would always eventually and inevitably completely morph out of control. I’d also lose track of notebooks, because I never properly indexed them.
By contrast, the Zettelkasten provides a structure that works for me to gradually pick at ideas, prime my brain, through months (and I’m hoping years!) instead of just a fever pitch of writing. In fact, I have two threads that are probably around 100 cards each, but I haven’t taken them into writing yet—I still add cards to them occasionally, when my brain comes up with ideas. And that happens occasionally because I come across them as I flip through cards.
I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a fan of the metaphor of a person as a “vessel,” but in this case ideas really do seem to take a life of their own sometimes.
I used this thread of note cards to write my book, There Is No Right Way to Do This.
4. A Place to Remember Your Lost Gems
This brings me to the next point: I have a tendency to forget my ideas—some of them are valuable, perhaps not urgent or important enough for my brain to remember. I like to think I have at least an average memory. Sometimes, by happy accidents, friends remind me of an idea I mentioned in the past, but I can’t expect to rely on them for this service.
Jay-Z is Dunder Mifflins’ worst enemy, because he’s famous for being paperless. He never writes anything down before he records. He said in 2010 that he’s lost a couple of albums worth of material. Given that his records not only sell well but also are used as leverage in eight-figure negotiations (nine?), that’s a lot of value to leave locked inside the brain.
I have no tears to cry for Jay, but I knew I had at least a couple of books worth of material inside my brain—and the Zettelkasten is the solution. Because I’m frequently reviewing parts of it, its structure is perfect for these ideas showing up at unexpected, but pleasant, events. It’s like running into a good friend on the street.
By contrast, when my ideas are rooted in my articles, I experience a general, overwhelming, sense of, “I’ve covered a lot of stuff.” If I remembered a specific piece, which usually didn’t happen (I forgot it even existed), I’d have to spend 5–30 minutes finding it (“Where did I write that piece again? What was the headline again?”).
In other words, working on the work can make the work itself better, smoother, and more pleasant.
5. Eventually, Move Digital
When I started spending way too much time trying to find a specific note (and forgetting its identifier (each card has its own) or even wherever the hell I put it into my Zettelkasten), I decided it was time to start digitizing the notes.
I did this with around 300 cards at first, and it took 1–2 weeks of scanning an hour a day with the Pen to Print app. For the rest of the cards, I just write them out by hand first and then write them out on the computer. Very rarely, I do it the other way around. I’m almost sure there’s a better one out there, I just don’t know of it. (Would love to hear suggestions.) Whenever you have trouble finding cards, that’s the time to do it—you’ll know.
6. Make Sure the Notes are Portable
When I started, Roam Research wasn’t available to the public yet, so I started with a database in Notion. I love trying new software for fun, but choosing between it for work is pulling teeth. So I moved quickly through this part—I just figured Notion wasn’t going out of business, my friends have used it, and I’d try it out and see if it works. I just copied the template I saw in this video, and got started from there.
Frankly, Notion is okay, but it’s really far from perfect. It’s sluggish on desktop sometimes, which is how I mainly use it. In one moment of frustration, I tried exporting Notion’s markdown files to Roam, and… it worked! Notion will suffice for now, and I figure as long as I can export all my cards pretty quickly, wherever I work in my Zettelkasten is fine.
7. Write New Cards Regularly
The originator of the Zettelkasten method, sociologist Niklas Luhmann, averaged six note cards per day. I do at least one (and am closer on average to three), usually first thing in the morning. (Dailyish would be more accurate.) The main key is that whenever I write a new note card, I’m encouraged to review other parts of the Zettelkasten in order to find a place to put it.
Wherever I mark up a note on a book (e.g., highlight, marginalia, etc.), there’s a good chance that’s making it into a note card somewhere. Most times I wait until I’m done reading the book so I have a greater context, and I’ll take notes on each book cover to cover. I try to choose more carefully these days.
Finding the connection and place to put it is actually probably the most difficult part. I wish I could say the process was that linear—but I try not to constrain it too much. On days I have a big chunk of time or feel particularly motivated, or drawn into a specific article/book, I’ll do more.
Some passages practically scream to be put into the Zettelkasten so I’ll indulge them. Sometimes I’ll have dozens of things I wrote on cards without identifiers or places in the Zettelkasten yet, and I’ll spend 30–60 minutes putting them in and finding places for them.
In case I haven’t said it enough, this regular review process is the most important key to making all of this work. Most of the other structures didn’t work for me because they didn’t make it easy for me to review the rest of the information (e.g., individual Docs will get buried away in Google Drive, etc.).
8. The Best Method is the One that Works for You
If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s that I’m “doing” the original Zettelkasten method technically incorrectly. Ryan Holiday uses the word “perverted” to describe his own note-taking method compared to the one he learned from Robert Greene, and I feel the same way about mine to sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s original. I’d basically skimmed through How to Take Smart Notes for an hour or so, and decided to try it out. This article really reassured me of this—just start.
For example, I don’t have a separate box for source/literature notes or citations. I just figured, Google exists now, it didn’t in Luhmann’s days. I just need to write enough information—a date, a website name, an author name, a headline, etc.—to be able to pull up the primary again.
If the Zettelkasten doesn’t work for you, try another method of storing knowledge. The most important lesson is to have something that works for you, rather than trying to force yourself into something that might not work.
I actually have always taken notes, but trying the Zettelkasten method really tied everything together for me. As of this piece, it has been eight years since I tried making index cards work, and a few different methods of organizing. None of them worked until now. So each medium might be worth retrying, with a different method than before.
Getting Organized Is an Investment in Future Work
It’s like Tom DeMarco writes in Slack: when it comes to investing, a penny saved is not a penny earned. I spend time writing articles and books, but I invest time in the Zettelkasten. It works for me and has become a valuable asset. There’s a long way to go before the system is perfect, but it’s more than acceptable for now. I figure I’ll just keep working on it and improvements will gradually and slowly emerge.
If you don’t have a method, I’d highly encourage you to give this one a try. Make as many modifications as you need. I think you’ll really like it!
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